You couldn’t have scripted a more fitting finale for the worst division in football last year.
It began on the afternoon of Week 17, when the Giants stayed alive for the NFC East crown (with a 6–10 record!) by beating the Cowboys, thanks to running back Wayne Gallman’s fumbling—of his own accord and after gaining the necessary yardage for a game-clinching first down—but then recovering the loose ball with his glutes. Still, New York needed the Eagles to top Washington that night. That’s when Philadelphia, despite being close entering the fourth quarter, replaced starter Jalen Hurts with overmatched backup Nate Sudfeld. The result was a prime-time debacle and a division-clinching victory for a seven-win team with no name, and the eventual dismissal of Philly’s Doug Pederson, the division’s only coach to win a Super Bowl with his team.
The good news is this quartet that finished a combined 17 games under .500 should field a champion with a winning record in 2021. In fact, three teams could be among the conference’s better teams.
The defending titlist—the “Football Team”—is as good in the trenches as anyone in the NFL. The defensive line, featuring Chase Young and Montez Sweat on the outside and the exceedingly underrated Jonathan Allen at tackle, can be the foundation of an elite unit. Washington’s creative ground game, led by second-year back Antonio Gibson and a sturdy offensive line, will complement that defense nicely. The question is at quarterback: Last year’s rotation of Dwayne Haskins and Alex Smith underwhelmed, and both are gone. Free-agent signee Ryan Fitzpatrick qualifies as an improvement, but can the 38-year-old string together a consistent season from start to finish for the first time in his career?
The Giants’ roster might not pop on paper, but the two most important people in the organization seem ready to take the next step: coach Joe Judge and quarterback Daniel Jones. In his first season Judge got immediate results from an undermanned roster, with the help of defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. Jones is built to be a ball distributor, and with an improving O-line, the return of running back Saquon Barkley and the signing of contested-catch master Kenny Golladay from Detroit, he could be directing a top-10 attack.
In terms of pure talent, no one in this division can match the Cowboys. Last year was a lost season—it began with sloppy, turnover-filled games then got worse with quarterback Dak Prescott’s broken ankle in Week 5. With Prescott back, the offense could be special. If new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can find the answers with a young group that couldn’t fully execute predecessor Mike Nolan’s complex schemes, Big D could make some big noise.
The Eagles, meanwhile, are embarking on a rebuild, having replaced Pederson with 40-year-old Nick Sirianni, the former Colts offensive coordinator. They traded one-time franchise QB Carson Wentz to Indianapolis and will pair a Hurts-led offense that’s a little too young with a Fletcher Cox–led defense that’s a little too old. The fact that Philly’s front office first spent the spring building up draft capital, then the summer struggling to hide its interest in a certain quarterback in Houston, suggests that this team knows it’s in for a long autumn.
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Predicted Order of Finish
1. COWBOYS (11–6)
Best Case: Prescott picks up where he left off with an MVP season. The offense overwhelms opponents while the defense—playing faster thanks to a simpler scheme—holds on enough for Dallas to not only win the division but also multiple playoff games for the first time since 1995.
Worst Case: The offense has a solid year and picks up plenty of yards, but sloppiness and turnovers put too much pressure on an underachieving defense that struggles to adjust to its third coordinator in three seasons. Coach Mike McCarthy doesn’t make it to Year 3—or even to Week 18.
2. GIANTS (10–7, Wild-Card)
Best Case: Crow is on the menu for pundits who bashed the 2019 selection of Jones. The young QB emerges as a franchise player, winning with his arm and his legs. Meanwhile, the young secondary becomes rock-solid, and New York enters the playoffs as one of those teams that no one wants to face.
Worst Case: The offense is better but not good enough behind Jones, who is still prone to turnovers. The defense’s lack of a pure edge rusher continues to be an issue as the Giants struggle to close out games. While Judge keeps his job, New York takes a long look at the quarterback market during the offseason.
3. WASHINGTON FOOTBALL TEAM (9–8)
Best Case: Young wins Defensive Player of the Year as the leader of the league’s best unit. A touch of FitzMagic is all the offense needs to make the team a Super Bowl contender.
Worst Case: The defense proves stingy, but it also doesn’t take the ball away often enough to deliver a truly elite season. Fitzpatrick delivers his usual mix of dizzying highs and terrifying lows—the latter, unfortunately, coming during a late-season slump that keeps the WFT out of the postseason.
4. EAGLES (3–14)
Best Case: Hurts, viewed by the front office as a one-year stopgap, plays well enough to keep the Eagles in most games. They fall short of the playoffs, but he establishes himself as the QB of the future, allowing the team to invest its stash of draft choices in both the defense and Hurts’s supporting cast.
Worst Case: The injury bug once again bites down hard on Philly, especially its aging defense. As a result, Sirianni is frequently forced to abandon his run-heavy game plan, forcing dual-threat Hurts to become strictly a passer, which defenses love. The Eagles don’t just lose most weeks, they lose ugly.
More Division Previews:
AFC East: Can the Bills Hold Off the New-Look Pats?
AFC North: Cleveland's Time Has Arrived
AFC South: Titans and Colts Rise to the Top
AFC West: The Chiefs, and Then What?
NFC North: Leaders Are the Pack, Again
NFC South: The Champs Have Room to Improve
NFC West: Battle to Be Best of the Best